By William Plummer
Updated March 12, 2001 12:00 PM

When his father died in February 1999, Andre Dubus III was just starting his first cross-country book tour. After flying home to Newburyport, Mass., from San Francisco, Dubus helped his younger brother Jeb build a coffin. Then, he says, “I got in it and had them shut the lid. I wanted to go where my father was going to go.”

Dubus had already followed his father in his choice of careers. And today, at 41, he is enjoying a level of fame and financial success that forever eluded the elder Dubus. Big Andre, as the family called him, won critical acclaim for such short story collections as Dancing After Hours and Separate Flights, yet none of his books ever sold more than 30,000 copies. But thanks in part to a recent plug from Oprah‘s Book Club, Little Andre’s second novel—originally published two years ago—has become a runaway bestseller.

Like many of his father’s stories, House of Sand and Fog is about the travails of blue-collar folk—in this case, the struggle between an Iranian immigrant and a troubled young woman over the house from which she was unjustly evicted. The irony is that Dubus, whose parents split when he was 10, spent years trying not to be like his father. Although he showed early promise—”Even as a kid, he was such a good storyteller,” recalls his mother, Pat, 62, a social worker and the first of Big Andre’s three wives—writing was never on Dubus’s agenda. “I wanted my own identity,” he says.

One of four siblings (Suzanne, 42, runs a battered-women’s agency in Newburyport; Jeb, 40, is a carpenter and art teacher in Amesbury, Mass.; and Nicole, 38, is a social worker and filmmaker in Santa Cruz, Calif.), Dubus grew up mostly in Haverhill, Mass., where his father taught creative writing at Bradford College. Big Andre’s monastic devotion to writing was hard on his family. While he was locked away in his study, the kids were forbidden to make a sound. Money was tight, and it got even tighter after Big Andre left in 1966. “My mother was making $135 a week,” says Dubus. “But she had resilience and imagination. She might take frozen vegetables, cook them with garlic, onion and Spam, and it would taste like a four-star dinner.”

Although Dubus’s father remained involved with the family after the divorce, he could not protect his children from its aftermath. Coming of age in a series of tough Massachusetts mill towns, sister Suzanne remembers that “we saw a lot of alcohol abuse, a lot of violence.” Dubus learned to box as a survival tactic and later fought in amateur matches. He made it to the University of Texas, majoring in sociology, but didn’t write his first piece of fiction until after graduation, when a story by an acquaintance inspired him to try his own hand. “I started to write a scene, and it surprised the hell out of me,” he says. “I felt this peace I’d never felt before. I felt more like me.”

Big Andre understood. “My old man told me, ‘You’re going to be a writer,’ ” says Dubus. “I said, ‘Nah, I’m going to do something else.’ But he sent me to bartending school. He said, ‘You’re going to need a night job so you can write days.’ ” Dubus’s other postcollege gigs included turns as a carpenter, prison counselor, bounty hunter and actor.

At 23, Dubus sold the second story he had ever written—”Forky,” about a convict leaving prison-to Playboy. He still hadn’t accepted his father’s prophecy. Then four years later, he came home one day from bartending to find a message from his agent: He had sold a story collection to E.P. Dutton for $4,000. No one was more excited than Big Andre.

But it was tragedy as well as writing that drew the two Andres closer. In July 1986, traveling north of Boston, the elder Dubus stopped to help two people in a disabled vehicle. A car swerved toward them. He pushed the woman to safety, but her brother was killed and Big Andre lost a leg. The accident, which put him in a wheelchair, proved to be a spiritual turning point. “Before,” says Pat, “Andre was angry. You didn’t want to spend a lot of time with him. He loved his children but didn’t realize how much until later on.”

Brothers Andre and Jeb built ramps so their father could do laps around his house in Haverhill. Mornings, Little Andre drove from New-buryport to shave Big Andre and teach him how to use weights to build his upper body. Soon the Andres were giving readings together. On a car trip to Manhattan for one such event, Dubus fell in love with a fellow passenger, dancer-choreographer Fontaine Dollas, 39. Married in 1989, they have three children: Austin, 8, Ariadne, 5, and Elias, 3.

Dubus had long meant to talk to Big Andre, he says, about “what it was like to go from age 10 without a father. I just wanted to get it out of the way.” But he never got a chance. The last time he saw his father was two nights before the 1999 book tour. Big Andre invited him over to watch boxing on TV. At first Little Andre said no—he was busy renovating Suzanne’s house. “He called five times,” says Dubus. “He said, ‘You’ll regret it if you don’t come.’ ”

The two Andres stayed up until 3 a.m. “He told me things about his father,” Dubus continues, “about being a boy in the ’50s. When I left, we kissed on the lips. I said, ‘I love you.’ He said, ‘I love you.’ I looked back and he was on the ramp, the light behind him and the snow falling. And he said something like, ‘I know you’re going to knock ’em dead.’ He had complete confidence in me.”

William Plummer

Anne Driscoll in Newburyport